Thomas Jefferson is respected as one of the United States' Founding Fathers. Known for his creativity and inventiveness, he loved his books, home, library and gardens, and perhaps is most famous for drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Shadwell, Virginia. His father was a planter and a surveyor. His mother was from a family of high social rank.
Jefferson was a diligent student who studied for endless hours. He also spent hours a day practicing the violin.
He graduated from the College of William and Mary, then studied law with an attorney in Virginia - at the time, there were no law schools in the United States.
He began practicing law in 1767. He gained a reputation for intelligence and leadership by serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses and by writing a pamphlet, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," in 1774.
Jefferson began building the home of his dreams, Monticello, when he was 26. "Monticello" means "little mountain" in Italian. He designed the home and grounds, combining his interests in architecture and gardening. He once said, "No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden."
In 1772, Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow. The two began married life at Monticello, Jefferson's mountaintop home, even though it was still under construction. Most of the labor was done by white masons and carpenters, although a few slaves contributed their skills.
In 1774, Jefferson inherited 11,000 acres and 135 slaves from his father-in-law. He and his wife had six children, but only two lived to adulthood. Sadly, Jefferson was widowed after ten years of marriage. He kept a promise to his wife that he would never remarry, but some historians believe he fathered more children with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves.
After years of construction, Monticello had 43 rooms, greatly expanded from the original 14. The dome was placed in 1800, the same year he was elected president.
After his retirement from public life, Jefferson lived at Monticello, continuously expanding and remodeling the house until his death.
The Declaration of Independence
Jefferson once said, "I have no ambition to govern men; it is a painful and thankless office." Nevertheless, he held an impressive array of offices and played a major role in the formation of the government of the United States.
In 1775, at the age of 33, Jefferson was selected to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. He envisioned the document to be a declaration of Americans' desire for freedom from the tyranny of British rule. Congress debated and made changes to Jefferson's draft for two days. Jefferson did not approve of some changes, including the deletion of his words regarding the slave trade.
Every American learns by heart the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson's first draft had included a variation on those words: "We hold these truths to be sacred and un-deniable..." Benjamin Franklin is credited with making that stylistic change.
Jefferson wrote the words, "All men are created equal," yet he had 200 slaves he inherited them from his father and his father-in-law. Some lived and worked at Monticello, while others worked at Jefferson's plantation or his Poplar Forest estate in Virginia. He freed two slaves while he was alive and ordered five others to be set free in his will.
As a fairly young man, Jefferson served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, he won election to the Virginia House of Delegates, he served as governor of Virginia, and then he rejoined Congress.
In 1785, Jefferson became the U.S. minister to France. He was on the side of the revolutionaries during the French Revolution.
In 1790, Jefferson became secretary of state under George Washington; in 1796 he lost his bid for the presidency to John Adams by only three electoral votes. Per procedures in place at the time, Jefferson became the vice president. About that office, he said, "The second office in the government is honorable and easy; the first is but a splendid misery."
In 1800, Jefferson and Aaron Burr received an equal number of electoral votes. As a result, the outgoing members of Congress were called upon to choose the United States' third president. Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in convincing Congress to choose Jefferson over Burr. Four years later, in 1804, Burr mortally wounded Hamilton in a duel; Burr was later acquitted of murder charges.
Jefferson's first term as president included two particularly famous events - the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition - which led to dramatic increases in the size of the new country. He could not resist adding to the White House as he habitually did to his own Monticello. He commissioning two colonnades for the White House, to hide stables and storage space.
Jefferson's second term as president found him trying to remain neutral in a conflict between Britain and France. He chose not to run for a third term, even though there were no term limits in place at the time.
Thomas Jefferson was the first president to allow public tours of the White House.
Jefferson received a pair of grizzly bears as a gift from Captain Zebulon Pike, an explorer. The president kept the bears in a cage on the White House lawn until he was able to send them to his friend, Charles Willson Peale, a naturalist.
Jefferson invented a cipher wheel in order to encode messages to and from the State Department. He also created a design for a revolving book stand.
He disliked the corruption of Christianity, but he was an admirer of Jesus and his teachings. As were many thinkers during the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was a theist. He said, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God."
Jefferson's presidential inauguration was the first to be held in Washington, D.C.
In 1794, Jefferson started a business, manufacturing nails. He used slave labor but ensured that working conditions were comfortable.
Jefferson claimed that he taught himself Spanish in less than three weeks, using a copy of "Don Quixote" and a Spanish grammar book.
In later life, Jefferson sold his collection of 6,700 books to the Library of Congress. "Books constitute capital," he once said. "A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital."
Jefferson made improvements to many existing inventions, including the pedometer, the printing press, the plow, and the polygraph.
Jefferson installed a large clock at Monticello that used cannonballs as weights. The clock chain was so long that a hole had to be drilled through the floor to accommodate it.
After leaving the White House, Jefferson spent the final years of his life living quietly at Monticello. He wrote his autobiography, he worked to preserve important historical documents, and he founded the University of Virginia. The university was the first in the U.S. to have no religious affiliation.
Just hours before he died, he said, "I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do, and I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, - my daughter to my country." He died on July 4, 1826 and was buried at his estate.
Jefferson wrote his own epitaph when he prepared his will: "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia."
Unfortunately, Jefferson failed to heed his own words, "Never spend your money before you have earned it." He left behind a great deal of debt, due to his expensive habit of household construction and renovation. His possessions, including Monticello itself, were sold at auction.
Although Jefferson owned slaves, he is remembered by many as a champion of individual rights. He drafted legislation in an attempt to abolish slavery, and he even proposed that freed slaves could colonize independently in Liberia. He once said, "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it." He struggled unsuccessfully with the question of equality between blacks and whites, for he was a product of his time.